The Unsung Romance of Incompetence

by John Holbo on August 5, 2014

So I’m reading this post on The Guardians of the Galaxy (which I shouldn’t be doing, since I haven’t seen it, but I’ll bet the raccoon lives.)

And I misread this sentence:

In fact, these space misfits offer something rarely seen in superhero films: the Guardians show emotional, neurological, developmental and communication deficits that 1) are not expected to be resolved or cured at the end of the film and 2) do not make them ineffective as heroes.

Because surely we need to lose that last ‘not’. DO make then ineffective as heroes. That better be it, otherwise obviously this film is just like all the other stories about heroes who are kind of damaged but awesomely effective.

Obviously (I can tell this without seeing it), Guardians IS like all the rest, not different as this author so wrongly suggests. (But I’m sure it’s going to be awesome.)

Let’s back up so I can explain. A couple weeks ago I was reading horror-stories in the New York Times (can’t find the link) about malfeasance in forensic labs stretching back decades. Not important to find that article. Anything about prosecutors refusing to cooperate with the Innocence Project will do as well. Same tune. I thought: someone should really make a gritty, thrilling cop show about cops who probably think about themselves as being good cops but are basically, unknowingly, incompetent and corrupt. They don’t always get the wrong guy. But they often frame the wrong guy, just because they need to goose their numbers. But they always tell themselves a story about how they are good cops. CSI! The ‘I’ stands for ‘incompetent’! But the characters really think it stands for ‘investigation’.

I’m not talking about comedy. This isn’t Parks and Recreation. I’m talking about The Wire, minus the competence. Instead of the characters being high-functioning alcoholics, or guys with hair-trigger tempers that really only result in them beating up assholes, have a low-functioning alcoholic, partnered with a guy who just has anger-management problems that, as you might expect, keep him from getting the job done. Another example, True Detective. Rust is a hallucinating, trauma-repressing alcoholic. Marty is an immature womanizer. But they are both supremely functional when they are actually on the case. I just think it would be interesting to play it differently, just for once. Have the detectives/forensic lab boys be psychological damaged goods, and have that cause them to be regularly incompetent. Tell exciting stories about absent-mindedly framing some poor black kid, because the interesting detective characters screw up, and don’t even really realize it themselves. And sometimes they get it right. And we get to know them, so we get that they aren’t positively evil. This isn’t Bad Lieutenant, just the banality of semi-competence careerists. The whole system is just a giant moral hazard waiting to happen in every average officer’s life. It would be a great way to tell a story, if you could get it right, so the viewers wouldn’t just find it frustrating to watch a procedural about people who can’t follow procedure, or work out good procedures to follow.

Meanwhile, I look forward to watching The Guardians of the Galaxy be absurdly competent, despite all their psychological damage. Hilariously, all their crazinesses will be complementary! I’m sure it’s great.



ZM 08.05.14 at 7:13 am

“Merry and tragical? Tedious and brief? That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow. How shall we find the concord of this discord?”


reason 08.05.14 at 7:28 am

Did you ever watch “Callan”?


John Holbo 08.05.14 at 7:29 am

Another idea: a guy who consistently fails to stop international terror attacks in 24 hours, because he’s incompetent. But, admittedly, that one would have to be comedy.


John Holbo 08.05.14 at 7:29 am

“Callan”? Never heard of it. I’ll look it up.


John Holbo 08.05.14 at 7:30 am

“Another idea: a guy who consistently fails to stop international terror attacks in 24 hours, because he’s incompetent.”

As the seasons roll on there would be fewer major cities in the US, as in each season one is destroyed.


Gabriel 08.05.14 at 7:42 am

This is almost ‘The Wire’. Minus the four ‘natural PO-leece’, most of the supporting cast display aggressive incompetence or, at the very least, and indifference to any notion of justice. Prez blinds a young teen, Herc is an abusive brainless beast, Carver aspires to base competence but continues to be drawn to bullying, and Sydnor is obviously parlaying his considerable gifts to advance his career. And their leadership is, at best, aggressively amoral.

Displaying a spectrum like this probably adds more artistic nuance than what you are proposing, imho, although I’d certainly argue that Simon’s worst characteristic as a writer is an inborn cow-towing to some authority structures even as he critiques others.


Matt 08.05.14 at 7:46 am

I have long wanted to see a hybrid X-Files/police procedural where the Mulder is truly delusional and the Scully is stuck with him because a superior has a grudge or something. They’re supposed to investigate an office burglary in the financial district, and Mulder’s trying to get a lead on who put the demolition charges in the WTC. They’re supposed to determine if a missing girl ran away or was victimized and all of Mulder’s ideas lead back to time travel. They are supposed to attend a regional training meeting but at the airport Mulder thinks he spots a shape shifter, because two people in similar clothes switched seats while he wasn’t looking. Scully has to spend most of her time trying to keep Mulder from derailing their assigned task, and only occasionally gets to do her nominal job or achieve any success at it. Mulder makes big grandiose speeches like in the actual X-Files but they’re just paranoid delusions.

Apart from the weekly episodes the overarching story would be about Scully trying to maneuver out of her undesirable position. It starts out with little stuff like asking colleagues for advice, or applying for a transfer through normal channels. Then she starts ignoring when he puts himself in danger, tries to clandestinely drug his food and drink, and eventually starts humoring and encouraging his delusions in order to get him to do something so outrageous that he’ll be fired. I’m not sure who dies in the end, but I think one of them does. I guess this should probably be one of those one-season shows on cable since you wouldn’t want it to drag on as long as the original X-Files.


Gabriel 08.05.14 at 7:48 am

Again, Matt, I’d argue this is less interesting than the extant X-files, where Mulder was often wrong and his gullibility was sometimes intentionally used to manipulate him.


Ben 08.05.14 at 7:55 am

“I’d certainly argue that Simon’s worst characteristic as a writer is an inborn cow-towing to some authority structures even as he critiques others.”

What’re you referring to here? Masculinity?


John Holbo 08.05.14 at 8:01 am

“Another idea: a guy who consistently fails to stop international terror attacks in 24 hours, because he’s incompetent.”

Also, just to be extra clear: it has to be that he keeps unnecessarily trying to stop the terror in 24-hours, thereby frustrating the reasonable people who have more long-term solutions that would work better. Everyone keeps telling him to go home and get some sleep but, nope, he just drinks more Red Bull and another city goes poof in the morning.

The X-Files idea is good, too. I remember thinking about something like that years ago (not to swipe your idea!) I must have been mulling this dream of incompetence for a while, without quite articulating what the general idea is.


Matt 08.05.14 at 8:02 am

Or another idea in the same neighborhood, but on paper, I’d like a story that at first appears to fit the mold of SF about the Technological Singularity, but actually is a crime caper about how someone cons people who believe in the coming Technological Singularity.


Matt 08.05.14 at 8:05 am

The guy-who-can’t-stop-terror-attacks idea sounds right for a series on Adult Swim.


Dominic 08.05.14 at 8:09 am

This reminds me of The Star Chamber. The theme crops up in more reflective ‘above the law’ dramas once in a while. Can’t think of a clear CSI-style example though.


Dominic 08.05.14 at 8:11 am

Oh, and on the comedy side you have the opener to The Other Guys, as well as most of Childrens Hospital.


ZM 08.05.14 at 8:12 am

I’m confused – do you mean the Guardians movie plot is the unsung romance of your title (even though it has been produced) ? Or is your proposal about incompetent wrongdoing police officers the unsung romance of the title? If it is the latter I don’t think romance is the right genre classification for your plot. The real life story where the young man is at last let out of gaol after his wrongful conviction and then begins an organisation for transitional housing would be a bit closer to being a romance …. Your 1st plot seems to be more along the lines of a tragedy. Or is this another example of where you say the opposite of what you actually mean on the internet? I wish there was an emoticon for that.


Dominic 08.05.14 at 8:18 am

Also, I think a point missed here (and in the original article) is that while they’re individually incompetent, they are able to function effectively *as a team*. Having seen the movie, it undercuts that point a few times.


reason 08.05.14 at 8:20 am

Callan actually thinking about it, is a bit the opposite. The completely unromantic nature of competence. It is a world where nobody is a hero.


Tony Lynch 08.05.14 at 8:25 am

I think there is a certain heroism to Lonely. Not that it’s very attractive.


John Holbo 08.05.14 at 8:27 am

Having not seen it I am strictly agnostic about Guardians, but it sounds like they succeed in the end despite incompetence rather than failing due to it. My point is that muddling through despite mental illness is nothing new. What would be new would be failing due to it in the context of a genre where a kind of competent-despite-incompetence is a genre convention. If the raccoon dies I may revise this assessment.


reason 08.05.14 at 8:29 am

It just occured to me of course that your series has already been made, it’s called the Pink Panther.


John Holbo 08.05.14 at 8:36 am

As to how my idea could be a romance and yet tragic. We’ll, call it a tragic romance then. My heroes will be anti-heroes, since they hurt people. But like Tony Soprano they are an attractive ugly. We seem them as products of a fascinating flawed culture.

If romance still bothers you think about how Wells called his novels scientific romances. These are going to be unscientific romances. CSI where the ‘I’ is incompetence.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 08.05.14 at 8:41 am

Have not seen the movie (does not open in Spain till… pfff), but I guess that what the reviewer is trying to say is that at the end of it our heroes have not discovered how to overcome their flaws and that is the point where they actually can save the galaxy or whatever. You know, the typical Disney thing of “now I’ve learn an important lesson”. Or like Thor in the first movie.

But by all means some of those ideas do sound interesting. Kinda bored about the whole ultracompetent people in TV.


John Holbo 08.05.14 at 8:42 am

Reason, I agree that the only thing new would be making it a drama not a comedy. Saying it’s Mr. Bean meets The Wire just makes it sound like it has to be comedy but I don’t think you would need to do that. Incompetent people in fiction are always funny but incompetence in life is not. So there’s this whole field of human life waiting to be presented in a different mode. I’m a joker so I won’t be the one to do it. I’ll write that parody of 24 instead maybe.


ZM 08.05.14 at 8:53 am

My understanding is that something is classified as a romance when it takes all the elements of a tragedy and turns it into a happy(ish) ending. It is also called a tragi-comedy – but this also show the direction – from tragedy to comedy. The rude mechanicals’ play does the opposite – they have mirthful moments leading to tragedy – so the Ancient Greeks in the audience critique them . I haven’t studied the matter but I presume it has something to do with Classical genre theory.

The Sopranos was not a romance. Wells’ work he called romances likely did not have incompetent wrongdoers send innocent people to prison as the nominal ‘happy ending’ (how – because the awful characters saved their jobs it was a happy ending?)


Jesús Couto Fandiño 08.05.14 at 8:58 am

Now, my memory may be playing tricks on me, and it doesnt fit the bill 100%, but didnt the old “Cracker” series basically have an hyperintelligent asshole like House that was actually not that good? Or better to say, he was good, but the relationship with that competence and actual justice was more like chance and persistence than anything Sherlock-like?

The rest of the police department ran from idealist good cop to horrible abusing power piece of shit


John Holbo 08.05.14 at 9:06 am

How about we just say the thing I’m talking about is anything that matches the descriptions I give, minus the word romance.


Matt 08.05.14 at 9:11 am

OK, one more tonight and then I’ll stop spamming the thread:

I really enjoyed the film Fight Club. I hated the book Fight Club.

In neither one did the narrator’s philosophy or schemes make sense. In the filmed version, which I actually experienced first, I thought that was part of the black comedy’s charm. We were in on the joke of this whining, speechifying, hallucinating protagonist and his ill-conceived, poorly-executed revolt against society. He starts out unremarkable and can’t accomplish anything special even when he resorts to violence. His subversive business of stealing liposuctioned fat and making it into soap for the rich was ridiculous. “Free” fat from medical waste is more costly than just buying pure oils after you make it look good enough for department store soap. His scheme to reset the world financial system with office building demolition was like trying to discharge credit card debts using a demagnetizer on your wallet. I thought that the audience was expected to understand this better than the characters, so I laughed through it like I did through the Paul Verhoeven Starship Troopers.

In the original book I didn’t get that sense of different perspectives between the author and the characters. There was nothing to indicate that the author didn’t feel deep kinship with his bored, boring, destructive narrator and the First World Problems that drove him over the edge. But I think that when viewed in the right frame of mind, the film Fight Club is a fine romance of incompetence.


Matt 08.05.14 at 9:16 am

Breaking my word: according to a large number of Amazon reviews, Fight Club the novel is brilliantly satirical too. So maybe I just had an off day the first time I read it and need to try again.


CP Norris 08.05.14 at 9:57 am

“I thought: someone should really make a gritty, thrilling cop show about cops who probably think about themselves as being good cops but are basically, unknowingly, incompetent and corrupt.”

That sounds a lot like Alyssa Rosenberg’s early take on True Detective, though I think it (and she) changed a bit later on. I haven’t seen it.


Chris Bertram 08.05.14 at 10:18 am

Engrenages/Spiral contains a fair few incompetents, with Gilou taking the biscuit. But Berthaud is usually willing to seduce someone to cover for him.

The hero of Good Cop was spectacularly incompetent and dug himself in ever deeper.


AcademicLurker 08.05.14 at 11:09 am

Matt@24: And interestingly, both Fight Club and Starship Troopers (the movies) have sparked constant debate about whether/how-much-of the audience realized that the film was basically laughing at the book.


bob mcmanus 08.05.14 at 11:17 am

Oedipus Rex. Romeo and Juliet. Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Death of a Salesman.

Narutaru (Shadow Star). Texhnolyze. Space Runaway Ideon. Rose of Versailles. Berserk. Basilisk. Wolf’s Rain.

Cabin in the Woods.


bob mcmanus 08.05.14 at 11:24 am

Kobayashi’s The Human Condition


ZM 08.05.14 at 11:39 am

“How about we just say the thing I’m talking about is anything that matches the descriptions I give, minus the word romance.”

Well, I do think that perhaps is a better idea indeed if you are definitely set on having a plot where your characters’ corruption and incompetence are irredeemable and lead to the false imprisonment of innocent characters and other tragedies.

For dramatic rather than parodic writing examples you might look at Checkhov’s plays which all have flawed characters I think and sad endings, or the ‘superfluous man’ genre, or Gogol’s Dead Souls – although he was going to reform his characters, but couldn’t manage it, burnt his papers, and took to his bed to die.


stubydoo 08.05.14 at 12:05 pm

What about MacGruber?


Anders Widebrant 08.05.14 at 12:11 pm

We’ll, call it a tragic romance then.

For marketing purposes I think we’re going to have to go with “romantic tragedy” here.

My intuition matches the subtext I get from the rest of the comments section – it does sound too good to not already have been done. But I can’t come up with a really good example, either.

Seems like Tony Soprano, Chief of Police would get pretty close, especially if you transpose in his merry band of incompetent Captains.


John Holbo 08.05.14 at 12:40 pm

“Cabin in the Woods.”

I’ll buy that for a dollar, but it needs to be remade so that the story is told from the point of view of the technicians. Which would be awesome. The banality of ultimate primordial evil from beyond space and time! I admit that we get it about 25% from the point of view of the technicians. It’s one of the great things about that film.

Don’t know what some of that other stuff is you mentioned, Bob.

But one problem with some of the suggestions – and actually this is half a problem with “Cabin”, too – is that the heroes shouldn’t dramatically suffer for their incompetence. (Get outa her Oedipus, you poor guy! And you, too, Willy.) Some suffering, yes but mostly others should suffer because of it. There should be negative social externalities of which we are vaguely aware. And there should be minor characters whom we know suffer, but whom we don’t know well, so as viewers whose sympathies are somewhat captured by the protagonists, we should find ourselves slipping into the same sorts of narrow view the protagonists exhibit. Inducing that would be the goal.

One thing that would be important is keeping it low key. Obviously you can’t have the superhero save the world stuff. It just needs to be that there are these ordinary cases – lots of them – and the officers are kind of screwing them up consistently over time. So no magic or hellmouths or vampires or time travel or robots or mutants.

On the other hand, you could have, say, a superhero comic about a hero who just consistently screws things up, but without blowing up the world by accident. “Kick-Ass” tried to be this but got bored with the idea and just went back to being a regular old superhero parody-type thing.


ZM 08.05.14 at 12:44 pm

Get Smart?


Barry Freed 08.05.14 at 1:06 pm

Incompetence and failure are major themes of Adult Swim’s awesomely awesome The Venture Bros. . The bodyguard Brock Sampson is the only really competent character and he just seems more jaded and spent as the series moves along.


Colin Ryan 08.05.14 at 1:07 pm

Viewing Fight Club as satire was the only way I could wring any enjoyment out of it too. Sadly, Palahniuk doesn’t seem to think he wrote satire.


William Timberman 08.05.14 at 1:07 pm

Your suggestion isn’t true to life. It is life — as I have lived it, at least. Now you’re no doubt gonna tell me Yes, silly, that’s the point. I’m being droll here. This is Crooked Timber, and we are social-critics-with-a-light-touch. You are going to tell me that, right? Otherwise I think I may have to start weeping uncontrollably….


bob mcmanus 08.05.14 at 1:11 pm

Conrad. O’Neill. All the King’s Men. Cormac McCarthy.

Where’s your protagonist?

1) Drama is sometimes defined as desire + obstacle => overcoming.
2) Romance, after the French Revolution expanded and internalized drama to incorporate failure, we identify with the person who tries really hard and and retains or obtains her ideals under stressful circumstances, even if the world kills her. Or fails and becomes corrupted, in which case we have a true tragedy.
3) In a lot of stories or widespread corruption and incompetence, we still have a naif to identify with as the protagonist. All the King’s Men. Yossarian.
4) In stories of almost universal corruption without an innocent observer, we will tend to identify with the victims. Sometimes it takes a lot of searching, but we will find some dead little children. They become in a sense our protagonists.

Avengers, or the Heart-Rending Tragedy of Loki.

What are you looking for, a drama about guards at a concentration camp, from the PoV of the guards, without empathy for the victims? It’s tough, because win or lose, the corrupt and incompetent for most of us will resolve to being the antagonists.


John Holbo 08.05.14 at 1:12 pm

“Incompetence and failure are major themes of Adult Swim’s awesomely awesome The Venture Bros.”

This is true. Get Smart is another good example. But all these are extreme comedy examples, and the question is: can we make it – if not non-comic – then more low-key. I guess I’ll retract that it is going to be pure drama, because it is going to be so against the genre grain that the effect will be mildly comic no matter what. Fine, fine. But still. Could you use modern tv’s talent for the long slow story arc and show the subtle decline that comes, for the characters and their institutions and their environment, because they are incompetent?


Jonathan Burns 08.05.14 at 1:12 pm

Dirty Pair!


John Holbo 08.05.14 at 1:16 pm

“What are you looking for, a drama about guards at a concentration camp, from the PoV of the guards, without empathy for the victims?”

A good example would actually be “The Kindly Ones”. I really liked that novel. Well, it was awful. But it was well done. It’s sort of Walter Mitty meets the Banality of Evil. Something like that, but with bad cops in Baltimore. Or whatever. But less evil. They don’t murder people. They aren’t indifferent to the crime of murder. But they aren’t sufficiently morally engaged in the right way, plus they are of only average intelligence.


bob mcmanus 08.05.14 at 1:18 pm

Or, if all else fails and we are presented with a total world of shit, we ourselves, reading the text, become the protagonists who must overcome the obstacle of the story. The terror and pity in the audience for Oedipus Rex.

There are always effective good guys as protagonists, somewhere around a narrative. Can’t really have incompetence and corruption without their opposites.


John Holbo 08.05.14 at 1:18 pm

Oh the art of Adam Warren, what are you doing in my thread? (Good point, though. Not quite it, but the failure is definitely coming along nicely.)


J Thomas 08.05.14 at 1:25 pm

How about a cop show where the main character constantly gets in trouble for his incompetence?

Like, he gets transferred to Murder and he spends four days proving that the original suspect was innocent and he finds the real killer. He gets in trouble for spending far too much time on the investigation when it could have been wrapped up much quicker.

He gets transferred somewhere else and discovers city funds being embezzled by somebody important in the Mayor’s office and he actually files the case. This is incompetent because he should have privately shown it to his boss and the higher-ups would decide whether it was useful leverage on the Mayor, or maybe use it for blackmail.

He is put on a regular beat and by sheer good observation and quick thinking he stops the kidnapping of a little girl. The mother calls the media and they make a big production of it, and his boss points out that by looking so good he made everybody else including the boss look bad. How can he hope to do well this way?

Make it completely obvious that what this poor shlub thinks of as doing the job is in fact utter incompetence, and he has no business being in that job.


MPAVictoria 08.05.14 at 1:25 pm

” just the banality of semi-competence careerists”

I think if we were being honest most of us would admit that this phrase describes us pretty well…


MPAVictoria 08.05.14 at 1:28 pm

I would actually say that the X-Files is almost an example of this kind of show. They lose almost as often as they win. Scully and/or Mulder are always dropping their firearms or getting kidnapped/beaten up/knocked out.


Ed 08.05.14 at 1:30 pm

As some of the commentators indicated, this has been done.

Get Smart is one example. So is the Pink Panther series.

A less well known example is the “Brooklyn Nine Nine” series ( about a precinct filled with incompetent officers.

Granted the plot is a train wreck, but the movie “Now You See Me” ( centered on an incompetent detective, though the plot twist is that the incompetence is deliberate.

“The Watchmen” is centered on a group of superheros who are amoral and/ or insane in varying combinations, and who wind up incinerating a city among other things.


MPAVictoria 08.05.14 at 1:32 pm

“a procedural about people who can’t follow procedure, or work out good procedures to follow.”

Okay, last comment for awhile. Archer is a great example of this. They are all spectacularly incompetent and often fail to even come close to successfully completing the various missions they are assigned.

/Also if you haven’t watched Archer please do. It is really funny and well drawn.


jdkbrown 08.05.14 at 1:37 pm

The HBO series Treme, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, has elements of this. Though, for the most part, the semi-competence occurs off-screen, and the main characters are the victims of it.


Donald Johnson 08.05.14 at 1:39 pm

“oth Fight Club and Starship Troopers (the movies) have sparked constant debate about whether/how-much-of the audience realized that the film was basically laughing at the book.”

Can’t comment about Fight Club–I’ve only seen part of it on TV. But I’ve seen all of “Troopers” (on TV–you think I’d pay to watch that?) and am amazed that people can’t see the satire. It’s not exactly subtle. Maybe they were too focused on the gross out scenes with the Bugs.


bianca steele 08.05.14 at 1:39 pm

Boston Legal?

That train movie, the trolley problem cum union question one with Denzel Washington (not the subway movie with Denzel Washington), Unstoppable, was kind of like that.

And I think Matt @ 9 describes some seasons of Moonlighting.


bianca steele 08.05.14 at 1:48 pm

I just thought of a better example than Unstoppable (catastrophe is not avoided), but spoilers. It’s another trolley problem movie though, interestingly enough.


J Thomas 08.05.14 at 1:50 pm

From a long time ago,

Card 54 where are you?
Gomer Pyle, USMC


jake the antisoshul soshulist 08.05.14 at 1:51 pm

At the beginning of X-Files, I thought the story arc was to play Scully’s rationalist explanations off Mulder’s paranoid fantasizing. I thought it would remain ambivalent about which was correct. Or at least, part of the time, Mulder would just be crazy. When it became obvious that the show was going to move toward Mulder’s vision, I pretty much lost interest.


Ed 08.05.14 at 1:55 pm

I forgot about “The Shield”. The Wikipedia entry has a pretty good description of the show:

“The Strike Team uses a variety of illegal and unethical methods to prosecute criminals and maintain peace on the streets, while making a profit through illegal drug protection schemes and robbery. The Strike Team isn’t above planting drugs on, and coercing confessions out of, gang members or framing them. Attempts to give the team a fifth member have frequently led to near-catastrophe for the group. As the series progresses, the members of the Strike Team struggle to cover up their crimes in the face of increasing pressure and scrutiny from their superiors.”

Though maybe being just unethical instead of incompetence shouldn’t count, this is a good example because its a drama, the team’s deficiencies were not played for laughs.


Wonks Anonymous 08.05.14 at 2:13 pm

The protagonists of True Detective do screw up their big case, tell themselves they did the right thing, and lie about it. Their arc at the end is in part a matter of making up for their earlier mistake, and even then it is explicit that a lot of guilty people are going to remain untouched.


AcademicLurker 08.05.14 at 2:25 pm

@56: I’d forgotten all about The Shield. It is pretty unusual in that the “maverick who breaks the rules in order to get the job done” schtick frequently blew up in the character’s faces.


Justin 08.05.14 at 2:25 pm

See also: Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder.” And, of course, David Simon’s book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.”


Sisyphus 08.05.14 at 2:38 pm

The reason that this is rarely done is because it describes the tragicomic reality that we generally turn to literature, television, movies or anything to escape. The last thing I want to run into at the end of a day where all I’m normally subjected to people not being engaged enough at their jobs (even if it’s something as simple as the consistent inability of a fast food joint to actually get the order right) is another hour of watching that as an omniscient outsider. That results in me yelling at the screen, “For the love of all that’s holy, it’s NO PICKLE, moron!” That’s why it does have to be done in a comic way.


Satan Mayo 08.05.14 at 2:47 pm

The movie To Live and Die in L.A. fits your description. It starts William Petersen as a charismatic renegade cop who doesn’t play by the rules, but also does not get results. Complete with a wimpy and cowardly sidekick who turns out to be right about a lot of stuff, and a creepy villain (Willem Dafoe) who outsmarts our hero.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 08.05.14 at 2:52 pm

I assume we are talking about something more dramatic than flawed humans trying to do their flawed best and sort of getting things right some of the time.
Cop Rock tried to do much the same thing as The Shield, but the musical gimmick just got too much in the way.


Theophylact 08.05.14 at 2:53 pm

J Thomas @ #45: Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series. As far as I know, Gorky Park, the first in the series, was the only one ever filmed, and it made practically no money.


Peter Hovde 08.05.14 at 3:03 pm

In “The Shield,” you really get the combo of corruption and incompetence when the Shane Vandrel character is let out on his own.


Lee A. Arnold 08.05.14 at 3:04 pm

It seems to me that “Unforgiven” (the Clint Eastwood picture) verges on this territory. Every major piece of information in it is misreported or misconstrued. Classical tragedy.

I liked Guardians. Go see it. Film design spoilers ahead: The characters are goofily disparate; the unusual use of old music hits makes it fresh and pleasingly off-handed; and the sets, special effects and even the color compositions in the special effects are beautiful, intricate, and constantly changing. Somebody on that team has a truly great eye.


mud man 08.05.14 at 3:06 pm



Peter Hovde 08.05.14 at 3:06 pm

Forgot “Chinatown.”


MPAVictoria 08.05.14 at 3:17 pm


Is Jack Nicholson’s character actually incompetent though? I mean he fails in the end but I am not sure that he fails because of incompetence.


dm 08.05.14 at 3:18 pm

In the fantasy realm, the Game of Thrones books fit the bill. By any objective measure, everyone of the major characters is utterly incompetent in what the author would have us believe is their supposed area of talent. Somehow I managed to slog through five books. It’s at least plausible that the author intended it as deep satire from the beginning (e.g. two “R’s” as middle initials) and was chagrined when to story was taken at face value. More likely, the lack of competence flows from the limits of the author’s imagination. But hey, if I could imagine wisdom, I’d be wise too.


Bloix 08.05.14 at 3:48 pm

Genre fiction is about wish fulfillment. The difference between crap genre fiction and good genre fiction is that the crap is 100% wish fulfillment and the good stuff is maybe 75% wish fulfillment. JH is proposing genre fiction that is 0% wish fulfillment. This like saying, wouldn’t it be interesting to make really high-quality shit-flavored ice cream?


Dave Maier 08.05.14 at 3:50 pm

Card 54 where are you?

Isn’t there some party game where you add a letter to the title of something to get something wildly different? Maybe here our protagonist is an incompetent (!) poker player who always needs a joker for his inside straight.


Dave Maier 08.05.14 at 3:51 pm

See, now I know moderation is random.


RosencrantzisDead 08.05.14 at 3:51 pm

Elmore Leonard’s protagonists are desperately incompetent. The protagonist of ‘Killshot’, for example, makes really stupid decisions. Similarly, the characters from the novel “Pronto” all display a believable but forehead-slapping level of foolishness. Raylan Givens is also a character whose competence is called into question quite frequently (both in the novels and in the ‘Justified’ television series). He may be a crack-shot, but that trait is insufficient to make him a good law enforcer.

Inspector Morse quite frequently misunderstood evidence and accused the wrong person of murder with some significant consequences.


Lee A. Arnold 08.05.14 at 4:18 pm

In the latest series of the BBC’s Sherlock, episode #3 “His Last Vow”, every major deduction by Sherlock is incorrect, which forces the main plot conclusion.


L2P 08.05.14 at 4:39 pm

“That better be it, otherwise obviously this film is just like all the other stories about heroes who are kind of damaged but awesomely effective.”

I’d disagree with that. The basic superhero story is about a guy (or group) who’s flawed in a way that doesn’t let him use an awesomely effective powers, and the flaw is cured/overcome in some way so that he can.

Take the Avengers. The Avengers can pretty obviously destroy all of the villains whenever they want; Loki is quite literally powerless against most of them. But they can’t work as a team because they don’t get along for a variety of reasons (they’re flawed). They need to cure their flaws and work together to win the bad guys. Or the first X-Men movie. Wolverine (and Rogue) both have the ability to stop the villain’s plans, but can’t because of various human flaws. They have to overcome their flaws (basically, trust issues) to defeat Magneto. Superman’s whole deal is overcoming “flaws,” either kryptonite, or some threat to Lois Lane, or just not killing people, to win.

I’d say Guardians of the Galaxy is different, but people can disagree. I thought the heroes were still the flawed creatures they were at the beginning, but they find a way to win anyway.


hix 08.05.14 at 4:42 pm

I dont know. It seems pretty reasonable to me overall that people with mental ilnesses are better at their core job task than their peers. The flipside is that this leaves most people with mental ilnesses unemployed or flipping burgers if were lucky.


J Thomas 08.05.14 at 4:56 pm

See, now I know moderation is random.

In my experience it is oriented toward censoring spam.

You shouldn’t mention pcker. Or a collection of other keywords that are often used by schlock spammers.


donquijoterocket 08.05.14 at 5:10 pm

I kept getting hints of or from either Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant or the Gap Cycle.


mdc 08.05.14 at 5:19 pm

I think Gabriel, above, is right. The Wire fits your bill best. Incompetence is widely distributed, on both sides of the law. Those who are incompetent are as likely to be indifferent or oblivious to the suffering they cause as not. And importantly: although there are instances of competence– you don’t want *everyone* to be bad at what they do, do you? That would have to be a comedy– no one is good at their work because of their anti-social quirks.


cassander 08.05.14 at 5:37 pm


cassander 08.05.14 at 5:39 pm

God dammit, screwed up the tags.

>The whole system is just a giant moral hazard waiting to happen in every average officer’s life.

The show you are looking for is Margaret thatcher’s favorite TV show, Yes, Minister. Admittedly it is a comedy, not a drama, but it perfectly captures the moral hazards inherent in politics.


MPAVictoria 08.05.14 at 5:45 pm

“The show you are looking for is Margaret thatcher’s favorite TV show, Yes, Minister. Admittedly it is a comedy, not a drama, but it perfectly captures the moral hazards inherent in politics.”

I guess you could argue the minister in question is incompetent some of the time but the senior civil servants in the show are in fact extremely competent at getting what they want.


MPAVictoria 08.05.14 at 5:46 pm

And you know what? I am going to stop criticizing people’s suggestions now as I am starting to sound like that person that no one wants to talk to at parties.

//Yes, Minister is an awesome show.


NickS 08.05.14 at 6:08 pm

I have a fairly good example — I recently watched the BBC adaptation of Dirk Gently.

The title character is presented as clearly smart, frequently incompetent and a genuine pain-in-the-ass for all of his friends (and not in a charismatic House kind of way, but like somebody who just hasn’t figured out that you can avoid a lot of unnecessary drama by not constantly treating people badly). Each episode ends with Dirk solving a tricky mystery, but the show seems ambivalent about whether he has any particular skill for solving mysteries or if he’s just willing to keep poking around and eventually gets lucky.


stevenjohnson 08.05.14 at 6:22 pm

“The Wire, minus the competence.” Prez in The Wire was competent at following paper trails, but his racism led him to bungle (or commit a crime to be accurate,) in the encounter at the projects. Then when that other cop, an acknowledged hero, bungled identifying himself and Prez shot him, Prez’ career is over. I think that nicely encapsulates what the OP was talking about.

And I agree that The Wire as a whole was far too infested with unbelievable competence. Natural police my ass. Even more of a problem is the show’s belief that its heroes were capable of recognizing genuine incompetence. I think a notable example was Carcetti’s reversal of policy due to the (clumsily manufactured by the script) school funding crisis. The show’s heroes are sure that if he delivered on his promises that would have made all the difference. The single most glaring example of preposterous competence was Omar of course, so glaring that even the writers realized they had to kill him off in a supposedly humiliating way. (For what it’s worth, I think Simon’s real problem is the determination to pretend now is the human condition. That’s why there were never any left wing unionists in Baltimore, ever!)

But as novel as it would be to see some reality on TV or in the movies, the OP’s series will never happen. But it’s not because cop shows and movies are wish fulfillment genre, but because an implicit critique of society is not going to be acceptable to the first audience: The producers paying the bills.


Lee A. Arnold 08.05.14 at 6:29 pm

John Holbo, Doesn’t classical tragedy fit your criteria? The protagonist is flawed and cannot overcome the flaw, and so loses the battle. Doesn’t much matter whether the flaw is in the stars or in ourselves.


NickS 08.05.14 at 7:01 pm

The trailer for Dirk Gently demonstrates the tone of the series.


Patrick C 08.05.14 at 7:18 pm

I think Aqua Teen Hunger Force is just as good a candidate from Adult Swim as Venture Bros. An alleged group of heroes so lazy,selfish, stupid, and vain that they rarely even make it out of the house. A villain so incompetent that he kills himself and/or his assistant almost every episode.

Maybe they’re *too* incompetent?


Philip 08.05.14 at 7:42 pm

I’ve just started watching The Shield and the strike and the episode with Marcy and Bob as the killers seems to fit this. Dutch is interviewing Marcy sure that he will get the truth by playing the role of an angry father, while she plays the role of a daughter who’s disappointed not to be able to help the victim dies in the trunk of the car in the police parking lot.


TheSophist 08.05.14 at 7:49 pm

@69: Slavoj Zizek, is that you? Have you been masquerading as Bloix all this time?


PlutoniumKun 08.05.14 at 8:34 pm

This is virtually a genre in Korean cinema (I’ve no idea about TV). Films like Memories of Murder ( are based around the notion of Korean cops being generally well-meaning but brutal and incompetent, and usually only succeed in convicting the wrong man. ‘Mother’ and ‘Poetry’ are two other examples that come to mind (although only ‘Memories of Murder’ narrative centres around the cops in a genre fashion).


brandon 08.05.14 at 8:42 pm

General incompetence is a major plot driver in early Tarantino movies – especially Pulp Fiction, where pretty much everything happens because of foolishness or dumb fuckin’ luck, but also Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown; it also shows up again in Inglourious Basterds.


Olle J. 08.05.14 at 8:45 pm

The Wire – suggested by several and my first thought as well – does not with fit the premises of the OP. Even if there is both competent and incompetent characters in the series it is about systemic flaws, not individual ones. The clearly competent individuals, while sometimes sucessful in their endevours, ultimatly fails because of the system. Would not mean a shit if McNulty was not a drunken womanizer, he wouldn’t still fail.


Matt 08.05.14 at 8:59 pm

Orange is the New Black is a pretty good contemporary example of institutional incompetence in action. There are few prison-staff characters or actions that seem steeped in black-hearted villainy. But even the people who care can’t care about everything, they get burnt out on trying, and some of them have personality problems that strongly conflict with their better aspirations. I really liked the character of Sam Healy. That is not to say I like the person, any more than Walter White was likeable (especially by series end!), but Sam is a great character. He’s a bigot steeped in Men’s Rights bullshit and harbors a pathological fear of lesbians, which sometimes drives him to deep cruelty and abdication of his responsibilities. But he’s also someone who once really cared about seeing to the safety and welfare of the inmates in his prison, and he manages to care again and try again despite his own limitations and the institutional forces arrayed against him.

Sam’s determination to try again is more touching than the outcome, because his best efforts can’t fix years-old problems in a few weeks, though in a lesser show it might have played out that way. All you needed to do was look in your heart and learn the True Meaning of Inmate Counseling, Sam! Now you have made a real difference with Caring and Effort! No, it wasn’t written that way, and I’m glad it wasn’t. To play on Bloix above and an earlier thread, a story about an American prison where all the employees have to do to achieve reform is Really Care would not have been a 100% wish fulfillment miracle. It would have been a 110% miracle.


Shackleford Hurtmore 08.05.14 at 9:47 pm

I’ve had similar thoughts when watching police procedurals. For once, I’d like an episode where they use the Reid Technique to squeeze false confessions out of people , get them falsely convicted despite no matching DNA evidence or fingerprints and then the murderer just silently continues his spree. I think the ideal vehicle for this would be a whole season of the criminally unscientific Criminal Minds.


CaptFamous 08.05.14 at 9:54 pm

What’s the payoff in a show like the OP seems to be calling for? Is there a season-long arc where a cop’s fudged evidence file comes closer and closer to being exposed and getting him fired, only to get to the finale and have someone accidentally drop it into the shredder?

My major issue with the OP is that it seems to be a request for a show whose plot has no stakes, or maybe more specifically, a show that has cropped all of the stakes out of scope.

Shows often have divisions within their fanbase along the lines of “watch for the plot” vs. “watch for the characters” (Lost being one of the best examples, as you can use a 1-question survey of “Did you like the finale?” to determine which side someone is one). This show model that JH is proposing, to me, seems to be based on the idea that creating a high-stakes and satisfying plot will inevitably inhibit the creation of well-rounded, realistic characters, and thus in the name of character, no plot.


Boatswain 08.05.14 at 10:06 pm

The HBO series Oz might quality. Tim McManus — probably the character that’s closest to a protagonist in the show — makes a lot of mistakes while attempting to manage his unit and the prisoners. Those contribute to prison riots, him temporarily being replaced, injuries or deaths of prisoners, etc.


Matt 08.05.14 at 10:08 pm

I think that there is plenty at stake in a series like the OP describes. Each episode you’d be on edge wondering which of the suspects the crime would be pinned on. Sometimes it might even be the person who committed the crime. But it should be clear that actual guilt is not the decisive factor in who gets prosecuted and punished. Nothing at stake there? That’s like saying there is nothing at stake in the story of colonial war against Native Americans, because the outcome was so lopsided and morally unsatisfying. But morally unsatisfying stories can be satisfying in other ways and carry high stakes.


CaptFamous 08.05.14 at 10:16 pm

Also, re: Guardians, I see the main characters as dedicating their pre-existing skills to lawlessness due to feelings of alienation based on their various deficits, and their face-turn has less to do with their deficits being resolved (which they aren’t) than with their alienation being resolved by ThE pOwEr Of FrIeNdShIp!.


Jeff R. 08.05.14 at 11:00 pm

Reno 911 hits exactly where you’re looking for. (And while it’s played as a comedy, the more one knows about how accurate it was the more tragic it becomes…)


CaptFamous 08.05.14 at 11:10 pm

Matt@98 – That’s what I meant by “cropped all stakes out of scope”. None of those stakes belong to the protagonist, and the impression I have been getting from the comments is that they would not, at any point, come back to the protagonist, or else this would simply be a tragedy. And if there is not concept of long-term repercussions in the show, then aren’t we just literally talking about Law & Order?


novakant 08.06.14 at 1:53 am

the notion of Korean cops being generally well-meaning but brutal and incompetent

Also The Chaser
(great!) and most spectacularly The Host(fun!)


stevenjohnson 08.06.14 at 2:04 am

Perhaps we should think small? Imagine a movie where the hero tortures a terrorist for the location of the ticking time bomb. Nobly shouldering our burden of original sin, he (or she, for those with louche tastes,) hears the vital information. The hero races to the location, risking not just his (or her) virtue but his (or her) life in the effort to disarm the weapon at the last second (usually literally the last second, never minutes to spare, much less hours.) The hero desperately rips apart the scene, only to discover nothing. Suddenly, there is a dull boom, or possibly a loud one, as the bomb goes off, safe in its true hiding place. The hero stares, slack jawed with amazement at the way the victim of torture lied.


SN 08.06.14 at 2:15 am

Has anyone mentioned Get Smart yet?


Bloix 08.06.14 at 2:17 am

#100- this was, more or less (without the torture) part of the plot of a recent episode of the new BBC-on-PBS series Endeavor. But in the end Morse figures out who the bad guy is and they get him.

I like this series, btw. The plots are moronic but the acting is good and the period atmosphere is fun.


Crouchback 08.06.14 at 4:16 am

I’d second/third the Shield as an example of incompetence. Superficially, Vic Mackey present himself as competent, someone who gets things done while breaking the rules. He justifies his crimes with the excuse that he does more good than harm by taking criminals off the streets. But f you start to tally up the truly massive collateral damage he causes while remembering other detectives solved cases without shredding the rules, you can make a good case that Mackey isn’t competent at his official job, only at PR.

Justified another good example. It’s acknowledge explicitly in show that Rachel is a better deputy than Raylan – just not as entertainingly semi-competent.

Which brings me to one obvious real world example – the George W. Bush administration. Can anyone think of a better example of incompetents who truly believed in their own genius? Do historical fiction based on (for example) the civilian administration of the Iraq occupation and you could have a true epic of unaware incompetence.


Mercy 08.06.14 at 11:07 am

The aforementioned Game of Thrones, Thomas Covenant, plus anything by Joe Abercrombie, there really are a lot of fantasy books that fit the description in the OP, taking your standard naive/brainless fantasy heroes, asking “what would happen if these people tried to save the world” and carrying on the thought experiment for a thousand humourless pages to the inevitable bathetic conclusion. (the ending of Last Argument of Kings actually threw me, I thought at that point the hero’s betrayal was so obvious there had to be some of your more typical fantasy hero succeeds through pure luck/destiny planned. But no it really is just a thousand pages and then “rocks fall, everybody dies, life is pain and the bad guys always win”)

Which I guess explains why it doesn’t happen elsewhere so much, all those witless fantasy ‘deconstructions’ are terrible and pointless, Game of Thrones only just about works because of the traces of comedy and horror, which the tv writers sensibly play up.

Actually that’s a point, how does horror fit into this discussion? Plenty of incompetent, corrupt scientists screwing up and getting other people hurt there, not to mention washed up alcoholic cops/priests who fail to save the day.


Dermot Gilley 08.06.14 at 11:34 am

“… heroes who are kind of damaged but awesomely effective …” like Forest Gump and his alleged IQ of 70. Now, an actor who likely has an IQ of above 100, like Forest Gump or rain man, can always play a lower IQ, can always play lower competence, but someone incompetent cannot -all of a sudden- “up-play”. People have managed to dodge military service by playing dumb, but I have yet to hear of a Green Beret that later turned out to “have faked it”. “… being good cops but are basically, unknowingly, incompetent and corrupt …” – herein lies a problem: a cop is not necessarily more competent if he gets the right guy. Because the “right” guy may himself be so competent (!) that no criminal science of his time can ever catch him. But this is hard to prove. So the cop chooses, maybe not even always totally consciously, to frame the “wrong” guy to secure his job position. So … what this tells us, in my opinion, is that a lot of subject-matter “in”competence is really competence from the view of the individual acting corrupt – it is the incentive system that is corrupt. Which is set by politicians passing laws or signing executive orders, so the level of incompetence is to be searched for elsewhere.


ZM 08.06.14 at 12:38 pm

I forgot Working Dog productions in Australia sort of do what you are writing of (but more satirical again – I think your genre is a tragedy if done straight, or you need an arc to reform your characters?) in Frontline and The Hollowmen, anyway their new production is called Utopia about flawed departmental nation builders – it doesn’t look likely to have a happy ending.

“Set inside the offices of the “Nation Building Authority”, a newly created government organisation responsible for overseeing major infrastructure projects, Utopia explores that moment when bureaucracy and grand dreams collide. It’s a tribute to those political leaders who have somehow managed to take a long-term vision and use it for short-term gain.

The eight-part series follows the working lives of a tight-knit team in charge of guiding big building schemes from announcement to unveiling. Constant shifts in priorities are the order of the day as the staff are asked to come up with plans for everything from new roads and rail lines to airports and high rise urban developments. In short, Utopia examines the forces that go into creating a very well-designed white elephant.”


robotslave 08.06.14 at 2:01 pm


(Get outa her Oedipus, you poor guy! And you, too, Willy.)

Please, please tell me that was deliberate.


robotslave 08.06.14 at 2:27 pm

Also, have you ever read any Sinclair Lewis?

Not all of his novels fit your formula, but the best-known ones come about as close as you can get while still including the dramatic element you’ve omitted: resolution.

Though I suppose omitting resolution is perfectly OK if what you really want here is yet another dramatic TV series that gradually exhausts the possibilities of its characters, loses audience, gets cancelled, and leaves the script of the last few episodes to a skeleton crew.


Bloix 08.06.14 at 2:49 pm

The OP doesn’t propose a story about heroes who are defeated by the bad guys because they are flawed. It proposes a story – in the police/detective/legal genre – about heroes who, unknown to themselves, are the bad guys.

There’s a lot of non-fiction like this (note that JH’s inspiration was a NYT article) – the book about the induced deaths of twenty hospital patients in New Orleans during Katrina, Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink, or the New Yorker article about the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, Trial by Fire, by David Gann.

So why not fiction? This is a question about what fiction is.


phosphorious 08.06.14 at 2:57 pm

“Burn After Reading” seems to fit the bill. It’s spy craft as numbing bureaucracy and desperate mediocrity.


John Holbo 08.07.14 at 12:50 am

“Burn After Reading” totally works. That is exactly what I’m talking about, actually. It’s a comedy, so I guess the idea that I’m not aiming at comedy is refuted. I think we could do with more “Burn After Reading”, maybe even a bit more low-key.


Anderson 08.07.14 at 1:16 am

Marvel’s shtick in general is flawed heroes who manage to be heroes regardless.

As for Guardians, the bad part is they overcome their differences and Learn to Work Together as a Team. The good part is, they know how cheesy that sounds.


Bloix 08.07.14 at 1:18 am

Comedy works differently from melodrama. In comedy there’s often no one (or at least no lead) who’s a stand-in for the reader. But in melodrama (which is what genre fiction is) there must be a leading character to identify with.


Kalkaino 08.07.14 at 1:24 pm

The ultimate iteration of this paradigm, made for one of the great movies of all time: “Memento” — spectacularly incompetent protagonist being spun by a nefarious cop for his own purposes. There is a sort of payoff, but nobody gets his man exactly, and nobody learns any one or certain truth.

Possibly the most efficient and masterful parceling out of narrative info ever written.


clew 08.07.14 at 9:34 pm

About definitions of `romance’, belatedly:

Richard Burton’s _Masters of the English Novel_ compared past fiction (romances) to modern (the novel) thus:

“past fiction which exhibits a free admixture of myth and marvel, of creatures human, demi-human and supernatural, with all time or no time for the enactment of its events. The modern story puts its note of emphasis upon character that is contemporary and average; and thus makes a democratic appeal against that older appeal which, dealing with exceptional personages–kings, leaders, allegorical abstractions–is naturally aristocratic. ”

(The enormous, successful modern publishing genre called `romance’ often defines itself by a Happy-Ever-After relationship ending, but can run the gamut from exceptional personages to contemporary average ones.)


TGGP 08.08.14 at 6:52 pm

The protagonist in Memento was being spun because he preferred it that way. He even deliberately deceives himself so he’ll still have a goal to work toward.

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